The Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience houses zebrafish, goldfish, mice, rats and rhesus monkeys. Scientists at the institute use laboratory animals for their research, in addition to methods that do not require animal testing. To conduct an animal experiment, researchers must first submit an application to the CCD (the Central Committee on Animal Experiments) and a AEC (Animal Experiments Committee).
The CCD determines whether to issue a license based on the advice of a AEC. The AEC does the ethical review and assesses whether the importance of the research outweighs the suffering inflicted on the laboratory animal. This includes, in particular, the prevention of pain or discomfort to the animal, the number of animals for which a license is requested, and the existence of potentially useful alternatives for the research in question. These include research in humans, tissue from deceased persons, cultured tissue, digital models, organs on a chip, organoids and human embryos. The CCD consists of independent members; a AEC consists of half plus 1 of independent members.
Furthermore, every user of laboratory animals is required to establish an AwA (an Animal Welfare Authority), which, among other things, oversees the welfare of animals in the respective organization and advises on ways to reduce laboratory animal use. An AwA consists of its own employees.
Our researchers make use of alternatives wherever possible, such as digital models, measurements in humans and by using tissue from the Dutch Brain Bank. But for certain scientific questions, these alternatives are unusable. This is due to the nature of our research object: we are investigating the most complex organ we have, which moreover interacts intensively with the physical, social and mental environment.
When Christian Keysers and Valeria Gazzola want to do fundamental empathy research, they do it in mice and rats. When Joost Verhaagen investigates the breakdown and repair of nerve pathways, he needs rats to do it. The same goes for Ingo Willuhn’s research on OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and DBS (Deep Brain Stimulation). Maarten Kamermans cannot do without fish for his retinal research. And Pieter Roelfsema, who is researching a brain prosthesis for the blind, relies on monkeys for his experiments; because he wants to make sure that the prosthesis works and is safe before the first blind person undergoes brain surgery.
For all of these studies, at this time only experiments on humans would be the alternative to animal testing. Apart from the fact that no one would lend themselves to that, it is ethically unacceptable.
For over sixty years, the so-called 3Rs policy has applied to animal research: Replacing animal experiments with non-animal methods; Reducing the number of animals per experiment; and Refinement of animal experiments to reduce animal suffering. At the same time, in addition to alternatives to animal testing, new techniques are constantly being developed that currently can only be applied to animals.
Recent examples include optogenetics: activating and inhibiting nerve cells using pulses of light, something that is possible thanks to light-sensitive ion channels introduced into brain cells using viruses. Consider also CRISPR-CAS, the targeted “cutting and pasting” of genes in laboratory animals, so that brain processes and brain diseases can be studied very precisely at the molecular level.
Because we want to remain an important player internationally, the neuroscientists use new techniques for their research. However, they do try to gain as much knowledge as possible for each laboratory animal by using laboratory animals more efficiently. In this way, the number of laboratory animals studied can be reduced as much as possible.
The KNAW on the use of laboratory animals in neuroscience
In its report “Inventory. The importance of animal experiments and possibilities for reducing them in basic neuroscience research’ (2019) describes a variety of methods – several of which are mentioned above – that are promising for reducing the use of laboratory animals. Stopping experimental animal research is not the issue, according to the Academy: ‘Fundamental neuroscience continues to call for a mix of methods (…). Animal experiments are and will remain in the foreseeable future indispensable basic components of that mix’ (p. 50).
At the same time, neuroscientists do have a current task ahead of them. Among other things, the KNAW points to the importance of (re)using (big) data to reduce the number of laboratory animals. International research consortia can cooperate better in that area than they do now, according to the report. In addition, the KNAW advocates greater efforts in open access publishing of research in which laboratory animals have been used; in making the raw data of unpublished animal-related research findable and accessible; and in publishing negative research results and replication research. In these ways, unnecessary use of laboratory animals can be prevented.
Text: Malou van Hintum